Mark Ballard played baseball for the University of Maine from 1991-94. Submitted photo

Editor’s note: This is the fifth and final installment of a series of stories about this year’s inductees into the Auburn-Lewiston Sports Hall of Fame.

At the dawn of the 1989 high school baseball season, Mark Ballard stood on the stage in the Edward Little High School gym during an indoor practice and pointed to the banner marking the school’s state baseball championships, which at that point listed just one year, 1975.

Mark Ballard was a standout on the 1989 Edward Little state championship baseball team. Sun Journal file photo

“We’re going to put a 1989 up on that banner,” Ballard said.

Less than three months later, Ballard and the Red Eddies delivered on what Ballard now says wasn’t so much a bold prediction as just an off-hand comment by a kid who didn’t know any better.

“I think it was just, you know, you’re looking forward to the season … like you’re out messing around with your buddies playing ball and it’s bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, and you’re down by three and you say you’re going to hit a grand slam, (one of) types of comments,” he said.

Ballard served as the hard-throwing intimidator of EL’s second state championship team, then went on to become an ace at the University of Maine and a Boston Red Sox draft pick whose professional career ended before it started due to an arm injury and a bad diagnosis by the pro team’s doctor.

The Auburn-Lewiston Sports Hall of Fame is inducting Ballard with the rest of the class of 2019 on Sunday, an honor the Mechanic Falls native never expected.

“I didn’t grow up in Auburn or Lewiston. I grew up in Mechanic Falls, so I didn’t know how much weight that would carry. So, yeah, I was pretty surprised,” he said.

As a student from Mechanic Falls, Ballard didn’t become a Red Eddie until his sophomore year. He’d dabbled in other sports, but baseball was his favorite from about the time he struck out all 18 batters he faced in a Little League game when he was 12, and he dreamed of one day playing for the Boston Red Sox.

That dream would come tantalizingly, and ultimately heartbreakingly, close to reality.

Like many students from Mechanic Falls, Minot and Poland during that time, Ballard struggled to fit in with new teammates and felt he had something to prove.

“I definitely felt I was treated a little differently because I was not from Auburn,” he said. “It was a little difficult in the beginning.”

He played JV his sophomore year but impressed coach Bruce Lucas enough to get a spot on the varsity roster later in the year.

By the time Lucas put Ballard in his pitching rotation for his junior year, the lanky 6-foot-3 right-hander had won over his teammates with his confidence (teammate Todd Sampson confirmed Ballard “called the shot” on adding 1989 to the state championship banner), competitiveness and no-nonsense approach on the mound.

“He was kind of like Chris Sale,” said Sampson, now Edward Little’s athletic director. “I think everyone behind him enjoyed it because you didn’t need a pitch clock like they have in the minors now. He got the ball and he threw it.”

“He was just this bigger-than-life guy,” Sampson said. “He was big by stature. He was one of those guys who would talk the talk but he would walk the walk.”

Ballard relied almost strictly on his fastball, mixing in an occasional curve that he didn’t have much confidence in just to keep hitters honest.

“Every team has that one pitcher you didn’t want to face, and Mark was that pitcher for EL,” said Todd Livingston, who played against Ballard at South Portland before becoming teammates with him at Maine.

“The rest of the pitching staff that would come in behind him, we thrived off of that,” Sampson said. “He would throw the heat, and then Luke (Bruce Lucas) would throw me or Bobby Reed in there for an inning and my 42 mile-per-hour fastball would just keep everybody off-balance because they had seen Ballard’s heat all day.”

Ballard quickly emerged as one of the top pitchers in Class A and was dominant in the tournament. In the regional quarterfinals, he one-hit rival Lewiston. In the regional final, the second-seeded Red Eddies faced No. 1 Oxford Hills. Regional championship games were played at the high seed then, but Ballard remembers fans from both schools packing the ballpark.

“It was at Oxford Hills and it was very loud,” he said. “It was just really awesome. We were 10-6 that season and we were definitely the underdog.”

EL jumped out to a quick lead and never looked back. Verne Paradie hit two home runs to lead the offense, while Ballard was effectively wild on the mound, walking six but only allowing one hit while striking out eight in a 14-3 win. The Eddies went on to defeat Lawrence for the state championship, 7-0, although Ballard did not play in that game.

Oxford Hills got its revenge on Ballard and the Eddies a year later, beating them 6-3 in the quarterfinal rematch in Paris en route to winning the regional title.

“I remember we played on our graduation day, and Oxford Hills was, like, yeah, have fun at your graduation,” he said.

Ballard was able to put the sting of the loss behind him fairly quickly, though, as he turned his attention to playing American Legion ball for New Auburn Post 153 and enrolling to the University of Maine to play for legendary coach John Winkin.

“It’s funny, I don’t remember much direct contact with Maine (while at Edward Little),” Ballard said. “It was mostly through Lucas and (Mike) Coutts (an EL alum who was an assistant at Maine then). I remember my senior year I went up for a visit, but there was no scholarship offer up there.”

Before heading to Orono, Ballard helped the Lucas-led New Auburn Legion Post No. 153 win a state championship that summer. His greatest contribution to that title may have been with his legs and bat rather than his arm, which was pretty important, too.

To this day, Ballard is amazed that he scored what turned out to be the winning run from third on Louis Talarico’s suicide squeeze in the bottom of the eighth of a 4-3 win over Augusta in the championship game.

“I, of course, was not the fastest runner on the team,” he said.

Among those in the stands at AMHI that day to see New Auburn (29-2) win its first Legion state championship was Winkin. He also saw Ballard pick up the tournament MVP award after batting .532 (12-for-23) with two complete-game victories, including the championship game, where he picked up the win by scattering five hits and two walks while fanning 10 over nine innings.

Ballard made the Black Bears as a walk-on his freshman year (he didn’t receive a scholarship until his senior year) and made the travel roster. He was limited to mostly mop-up duty out of the bullpen, but did pitch during the Black Bears’ New England record 23-game winning streak.

That 1991 team, which also included Lewiston’s Brian Sequin and Oxford Hills’ Shane Slicer, went on to win a school record 48 games and hosted the NCAA Northeast regional, where it battled its way out of the loser’s bracket to reach the final, losing to Clemson, 13-5.

Graduation gutted the pitching staff, creating an opening for Ballard for his sophomore year. He quickly showed he was ready for a bigger role when he was named to the all-tournament team at the Southwestern Louisiana tournament, where Maine beat nationally ranked teams such as Oklahoma State and LSU. The Black Bears suffered a letdown when they returned north, though, and slogged through their first losing season in 29 years, going 19-24-1.

Maine turned it around in 1993, thanks in large part to Ballard, who made some mechanical changes to his delivery to make his curve as devastating as his fastball, which by that point was in the low-90s.

“I really didn’t get a decent curve ball until I was a junior in college,” Ballard said. “Having a second quality pitch is always helpful. I just didn’t really get the good mechanics of it until my junior year.”

“Tom Seaver inspired me,” Ballard said, explaining his change in mechanics. “People had told me I never used my legs when I pitched. His right shin would get dirty when he pitched. When I made that change, I threw considerably harder and then, I don’t know if it was the leverage or what, I had a curve ball that was a legitimate curve ball. I really don’t remember giving up a hit with the curve ball.”

Ballard credited his all-conference catcher, Shawn Tobin, with being the brains behind his emergence in 1992.

“It was just amazing how he would set up hitters,” Ballard said. “Shawn would tell me everything to do. He’d tell me to shake him off. He’d tell me to throw to first. He’d tell me to step off (the rubber). He was just so strong. If you threw what he was asking for, very rarely did the hitter get a good piece of the ball.”

“One of my biggest pitching highlights ever was playing my junior year against Delaware,” he said. “They were No. 5 in the country in batting average. In that game, (Tobin) only called five pitches that weren’t a fastball and we beat them (3-0). It pumps you up when your catcher is just, like, ‘Bring it.'”

Ballard brought it to the tune of 95 strikeouts in 91 innings that season, which still ranks fifth in Black Bears history. He was the North Atlantic Conference Pitcher of the Year after finishing 8-3 with a 2.67 ERA while helping to lead Maine to a 33-27 record and a sweep of the first North Atlantic Conference Tournament.

By then, Major League scouts were paying close attention to Ballard. But he’d felt a pop in his shoulder during his last start in the conference tournament, an 11-inning conference tournament win over Delaware in which he’d pitched the entire game.

“I felt a pop and told the (Winkin) I wanted to come out,” he said. “Then we scored in the top of the 11th, so now I wanted to go back out. I had to talk him into it. I was like, ‘Give me six pitches,’ and we got them out in six pitches and the game was over. But when we got to Texas, I had nothing.”

Winkin gave Ballard the ball for Maine’s first game in the NCAA regional in Austin, Texas, against Cal State-Fullerton. His teammates had no inkling that their top pitcher wasn’t the same.

“I remember thinking to myself, with him on the mound, we had a chance against a team like that,” said Livingston, a second baseman on that team and now the athletic director at South Portland High School. “He was a competitor. He had good stuff and had a great year that year.”

“I didn’t notice any pain when I warmed up,” Ballard said. “But when I got on the mound it felt like my shoulder was partially coming out of socket. I was numb right down to my finger tips.”

Ballard was lifted in the second inning of an 11-5 loss. Maine’s season would end with a blowout loss to McNeese State in their next game.

The following week, the Boston Red Sox drafted Ballard in the 23rd round, 639th overall. The Red Sox didn’t know about his arm injury until team doctor Dr. Arthur Pappas examined him days later and diagnosed him with shoulder tendinitis, prescribing rest and rehabilitation. The Red Sox, meanwhile, decided not to sign Ballard unless and until they saw him pitch that summer, which he never did.

Looking back, Ballard said he regrets not getting a second opinion.

“I don’t think (Pappas) really did me a service,” Ballard said. “I don’t really think he examined me the way he could have. And a lot of it was me not advocating for myself, because his diagnosis was tendinitis, because I didn’t have a history of shoulder problems. He said three weeks and I should be able to pitch again. It was five months before I could throw with no pain, but it still didn’t feel right.”

“I did not have the strength I had the year before,” he added. “I couldn’t throw as hard. I didn’t have the curve ball. It just didn’t feel right and I should have gotten a second opinion.”

Twenty years later, Ballard experienced neck, elbow and wrist problems. He saw a specialist who said the damage in college appeared to be a biceps tendon that had split and was rubbing on his rotator cuff and causing the weakness in his arm.

“There was no labrum damage,” Ballard said. “When they went in and they fixed it, there was not nearly as much damage as he thought there was going to be. But it was just enough to make it so my shoulder was not in the correct position,” he said.

The velocity on his fastball and bite on his curve ball never returned. A tri-captain his senior season, he struggled to get hitters out.

“I was terrible,” he said. “It just didn’t work. I was that pitcher that the other team wanted to face, unfortunately.”

About the only highlight of Ballard’s senior season was being part of the second triple play in Black Bears history, which they turned against Fresno State.

“As the season went on it got worse and worse,” Ballard said. “Early in the season, Wink had me DHing when I wasn’t pitching, then he stopped because he thought that was causing the problems I was having pitching. I remember, we lost to Hartford in the NAC tournament and I only pitched three innings. It was one of my worst outings.”

By then, the realization that his dream of playing professionally was slipping away had set in.

“That close to getting paid to do what I love to do. It was devastating,” he said.

Ballard knows a lot of factors, not the least being medical science at the time, may or may not have salvaged his pro career. As he’s gotten older (now 46), he’s focused more on the positive experiences he had from a remarkable career.

“I think it kind of changed me as a person, the letdown,” he said. “I don’t think I honestly have ever gotten over it. I certainly don’t dwell on it. What’s going on right now, with the induction and stuff, certainly I have really pleasant memories looking back through yearbooks and teammates and stuff. It’s not something I get angry about. I miss the camaraderie more than anything.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.